Where Is Ultimate Justice on Atheism? Part 2

Post Author: Bill Pratt

On atheism, there is no guarantee that evil will ever be punished or that good will ever be rewarded.  Philosopher William Lane Craig quotes Richard Wurmbrand’s comments on the state torturers in Soviet prisons who understood this all too well:

The cruelty of atheism is hard to believe when man has no faith in the reward of good or the punishment of evil. There is no reason to be human. There is no restraint from the depths of evil which is in man. The Communist torturers often said, ‘There is no God, no hereafter, no punishment for evil. We can do what we wish.’ I have heard one torturer even say, ‘I thank God, in whom I don’t believe, that I have lived to this hour when I can express all the evil in my heart.’ He expressed it in unbelievable brutality and torture inflected on prisoners.

Since death is the end, there is no reason to not live a purely self-centered life focused on fulfilling your desires, whatever they may be.  Atheist philosopher Kai Nielsen laments:

We have not been able to show that reason requires the moral point of view, or that all really rational persons should not be individual egoists or classical amoralists. Reason doesn’t decide here. The picture I have painted for you is not a pleasant one. Reflection on it depresses me . . . . Pure practical reason, even with a good knowledge of the facts, will not take you to morality.

Craig answers the atheist who might say that we should be moral because it is in our self-interest:

Somebody might say that it is in our best self-interest to adopt a moral life-style. But clearly, that is not always true: we all know situations in which self-interest runs smack in the face of morality. Moreover, if one is sufficiently powerful, like a Ferdinand Marcos or a Papa Doc Duvalier or even a Donald Trump, then one can pretty much ignore the dictates of conscience and safely live in self-indulgence.

On atheism, sacrificing for others seems utterly irrational.  Craig concludes, “Acts of self-sacrifice become particularly inept on a naturalistic world view. Why should you sacrifice your self-interest and especially your life for the sake of someone else? There can be no good reason for adopting such a self-negating course of action on the naturalistic world view.”

Why not be self-indulgent and live for yourself?  Under atheism, there is no rational answer to that question.  All you can appeal to is your moral emotions and instincts, which means the moral life nowhere intersects with reason.  Just do it if you feel like it.  Otherwise, don’t.

  • Bill Pratt: Why not be self-indulgent and live for yourself? Under atheism, there is no rational answer to that question.
    .
    Yes there is. It may not be convincing to you…but it is still rationale. If all we did was live for ourselves, then others would copy as well. If I feel free to steal from my neighbors—they would feel free to steal from me. Meaning I would have to implement security (they would do likewise.) Eventually society itself breaks down.

    In observing and communicating, we discover societies improve (and our own lives become considerably easier) by not solely living for our own desires.

    Heck, we learned this in “The Butter Battle Book” by Dr. Seuss!

  • Bill Pratt

    Dagoods,
    On atheism, why should I care if society breaks down? It may serve my interests for society to break down. It seems to me that many people in history have profited greatly when their societies broke down. What do you say to those people?

  • Todd

    Bill,

    I would obviously disagree with your assessment and would be happy to debate it, but thought I would take a moment to try and put it the atheist worldview into perspective instead of debating the

  • Todd

    … (oops, hit enter too early) … logic of your assertions.

    I hope it is obvious that many atheists can live their lives just as morally as Christians. Most of us live our lives the same as anyone else, what I find discouraging is having to debate in a us vs. them mentality. I admit to being guilty of it as well. But when we do that, we simply exacerbate the divide between our actual lives, which you might find in most cases is just as normal as yours.

    I think too often we present the extremes from each side as the norm. In this type of debate, atheists would be eager to point towards the inquisition as an example of Christian morality, just as the Christian might point at the atrocities committed against Richard Wurmbrand as the example of atheist morality. Both sides are presenting the extremes as though they represent the norm, which is simply not true.

    Often atheists will congregate together and ‘preach to the choir’ getting ourselves in such a frenzy that some among us lash out at the first Christian unfortunate enough to question our values. But often the same can be said for Christians that get worked into a frenzy of faith and will lambaste an atheist.

    It is our duty as ambassadors of our differing world-views to recognize that within our own ranks we must raise our voices against the extremes and prejudices that would divide us to the point of vitriol. We must all share our lives together, and that time is best spent in peaceable discourse whether we believe in an afterlife or not.

  • Bill Pratt,

    We have to be careful to differentiate between what a moral system is as compared to enforcing that moral system on others. ALL moral systems have difficulty when it comes to enforcement.

    Take any moral system. Utilitarianism, theism, social contract, relativism—how does the system convince others to abide by it? All moral systems (that I know) wrestle with this very fact. Indeed, we see this in Reformed Christianity, as a basic doctrine people are not compelled to abide by theistic morality, and Reformed Christianity attempts (like all moral systems) to provide a means to enforce said morality.

    Unfortunately, it boils down to “God’s gonna git ya.” Which…Reformed Christianity has discovered is as ineffective (and effective) as many other moral system, so it turns to alternative means, such as passing laws, shouting on the streets and exerting social pressure.

    You are correct, it may serve someone’s interest to allow society to break down. Regardless of what moral system we are under—we have equal problems in convincing such a person to not do so. You utilize what means you have at your disposal under your system; others utilize the means under their system.

    Whether we prevail or not only demonstrates the pragmatic effect of persuasion. (I could equally point out saying there is a particular theistic morality has not been effective on people. I could equally say, “What do you say to those people?” and show arguments of theistic morality failed.)

    This is analogous to complaining Chryslers can’t be powered with just sea water. While technically true, this is true of ALL vehicles—Ford, Honda, GM, Toyota, etc. All vehicles suffer from the same limitation.

    You are correct—naturalistic moral theories cannot compel everyone to abide by their moral code. But neither can any other moral theory.

  • Bill Pratt

    Dagoods,
    I never asked you about how you would compel people to follow moral rules or how you would enforce moral rules. I asked you how you would rationally reason with a person, on atheistic naturalism, that they should not become a dictator.

    My point, and Kai Nielsen’s, is that on atheism there is no rational explanation for why a person should be moral. Theism provides a rational explanation of objective moral values (God’s moral nature), a legitimate source of objective moral duties (God as the source of moral values and the creator of humans), and ultimate justice (God as the ultimate judge of mankind). Atheism fails to provide a rational explanation for objective moral values, fails to provide a source for objective moral duties, and fails to provide any kind of ultimate justice.

    If you think that all boils down to “God’s gonna git ya,” then you have utterly failed to understand the basics of Christian theism.

  • For those interested in further study, I would recommend Stanford Encyclopedia entry on Metaethics (especially the section 6) and Morality. (Or See Also Consequentialism and Contractarianism.) Although it is not easy reading!

    Bill Pratt, I don’t normally cut-paste-pound, but this seems the easiest way to explain:

    Bill Pratt: I never asked you about how you would compel people to follow moral rules or how you would enforce moral rules. I asked you how you would rationally reason with a person, on atheistic naturalism, that they should not become a dictator.
    .
    I must have miscommunicated —I consider those the same. The first sentence is the broad principle encompassing the specific example in the second. How we compel ALL persons to follow our system of morality would include compelling a dictator to not perform a certain act.

    Secondly, “atheistic naturalism” does not have one particular ethical system. See the entries above for the varying positions amongst philosophers regarding differing moral systems—and each system’s advantages and disadvantages. All (as I have said) struggle with enforcement.

    Thirdly, how would I rationally reason with a person they should not become a dictator? Presumably, you mean how would I reason with a dictator why they should not commit some action I deem immoral. (I do not know why being a dictator in and of itself is immoral.) Easy, first I would discuss to determine what motives that particular person. I would then explain why their actions would harm their desired goals. If they want to interact in the world community, for example, I may point out how genocide would harm that desire.

    Secondly, I would point out the consequences of actions, even if they are not motivated in my direction, and how the downside may be far greater than the upside. Finally, if that doesn’t work, I would understand how one cannot argue a person to refrain from an action I find immoral.

    Again (and again and again) this is a problem with ALL moral systems. Think of it this way—how would you rationally reason with a non-theist to act on your theistic moral code? You, likewise, will run into the same problem we all do.

    Bill Pratt: Atheism fails to provide a rational explanation for objective moral values, fails to provide a source for objective moral duties, and fails to provide any kind of ultimate justice.
    .
    Yep. Atheism equally fails to provide a means to get the perfect medium rare on unicorn meat. Atheism fails to give directions to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Atheism fails to find Narnia. Atheism can’t even give us a decent sports team.

    Oh…wait…*snaps fingers*….maybe because 1) atheism doesn’t address some of those items and 2) some of those items do not exist!

    Leaving aside “objective moral values” and “objective moral duties”—I’ll focus on the blog entry: “Ultimate Justice.”

    Saying, “Atheism does not provide ultimate justice” is not enough.

    First one has to demonstrate “ultimate justice” exists. Again, simply wanting it is insufficient. We may want a lot of things—doesn’t mean they exist. Repeating it does not demonstrate viability. First demonstrate “ultimate justice” exists; then we can discuss the viability of atheism and its inability to account for such.

    This sentiment keeps leapfrogging the basic foundation. As if it is presumed everyone wants ultimate justice, so therefore ultimate justice must exist. Without wrestling with the underlying problem of whether ultimate justice even exists.

    Bill Pratt: If you think that all boils down to “God’s gonna git ya,” then you have utterly failed to understand the basics of Christian theism.
    .
    I thought we were talking about which moral system provides a “rational explanation for why a person should be moral “—not “Christian theism” as a whole.

    Here, let’s try an experiment that may clear up many of these notions:

    I am not a Christian. I call you up one day, while you are out and about and say, “Hey Bill. I’m in your house right now, and I have found your secret stash of ‘rainy day’ money. I am going to steal it.” Now what do you say to me uniquely Christian—unavailable to any other moral system—to give me (a non-Christian) a rational explanation for why I shouldn’t steal your stash?

    You can’t say, “I will call the police”—that is available to many other moral systems and is not uniquely Christian. You can’t argue if I do this, then others would steal from me—again that is available to other moral systems.

    If you say, “God will punish you” this only demonstrates two of my points: 1) all moral systems have difficult enforcing on others who don’t subscribe to the moral system and 2) it boils down to “God’s gonna git ya.”

    (I tried to use a lighter example. If you prefer to say, “I’ll let you have the money” under the principle of love, I could use an example more harsh to be far more difficult. I know it’s not the perfect analogy…hopefully you understand the principle behind it, and what I am getting at.)

    So what do you say, Bill Pratt? What “rational explanation” do you give that is uniquely Christian for why I should be moral? And why would it work better than any other moral system’s enforcement?

  • Bill Pratt

    Dagoods,
    In your explanation for what you would say to the dictator, you never once explain to them that their immoral actions would be objectively wrong. Instead, here is your approach:

    “Easy, first I would discuss to determine what motives that particular person. I would then explain why their actions would harm their desired goals. If they want to interact in the world community, for example, I may point out how genocide would harm that desire.”

    This is pure pragmatism. “If your goal is to do X, then you should do Y to achieve the goal X.” This treats morality as merely a means to an end. There is no duty to be moral unless it lines up with your personal goals. But surely morality is more than this, and surely this theory of morality would not condemn numerous behaviors you would want to call immoral. Under this theory, if a man’s goal is to get as much money as he can, he should steal. And again, we have reduced morality to relativism, because everyone’s goals are different. Under your theory, nothing is wrong or right for everyone. It all depends on individual goals.

    “Secondly, I would point out the consequences of actions, even if they are not motivated in my direction, and how the downside may be far greater than the upside.”

    That is the exact point I was making with the person who is a dictator. There are no negative consequences for them, as they are able to get away with anything. Your argument would completely fail with them.

    Dagoods, I conclude that you have no rational way to convince a person that they should not act as a dictator. It seems that Nielsen’s assessment of morality on atheism stands, and you have failed to refute it.

  • MQ

    Still amazes me that athiests skirt around the issues of universal justice with all kinds of adhoc theories.The problem of morality is so crystal clear and probably the single biggest stumbling block for athiesm.I find it amusing that Dagoods thinks he can get the dictator to act in accordance with some deep philosophical treatment of self-serving ethics.Like the tyrant would give a hoot ! Transcendent morality is the only way he would radically rethink his ways.

    Personally , my view is that those who still take the journey forward to nihilistic approach to life are being dishonest with their conscience.They know obj. morality exists (why else should they fight for human rights ?) but choose to ignore it or justify it as an extension of self interest.More convenient for them I guess, they can live a life free of moral restraint without guilt.

  • [re-posted so one can read it!]

    Ah…the ol’ “objective morality” card.

    Let me explain why this fails. Every time.

    We define morality differently than you do. Therefore, applying YOUR definition to OUR explanation, and saying “It doesn’t work” fails to understand the difference. It is why I gave the link to the philosophical encyclopedia—so those willing to learn can understand the various moral systems philosophers have wrestled with for 1000’s of years.

    We define morality differently than you do. I understand your definition of morality includes “objective moral values” (meaning sometimes dissimilar even among Christian apologists)—but not all moral systems require it. Not all moral systems define morals to include what you mean by “objective moral values.”

    We define morality differently than you do. For an analogy, (not exact—please understand the analogy for what it is), image we were discussing fire trucks. And a person included various items to describe a fire truck (differentiating it from other vehicles) and then said, “and a fire truck must be red.”

    I reply, “While I agree with some of your characteristics, I do not agree a fire truck MUST be red, and therefore I would call that yellow truck over there a fire truck.”

    Whereby the first person says, “NO. A Fire Truck MUST be red, because I defined a fire truck as being red, and that truck is not red, so therefore it is not a fire truck.”

    In the same way Christian apologists define morality, and then apply their definition to other systems—systems that do NOT use their definition—and claim it fails, because it doesn’t met the definition the Christian apologist made up!

    We define morality differently than you do. Until one begins to understand this, recognize it, and deal with it, these conversations will never get off the ground. The Christian apologist often attempts to “prevail by definition” by presumptively demanding morality must include “objective moral values” within its definition without ever making the argument for why that must be included in the definition. Then, if they see something they do not think is an “objective moral value” merely declare it as insufficient for failing to meet the definition they made up.

    First the Christian apologist need show “objective moral values” (whatever they mean by that) exists.

    All of which is a tangent, as we are discussing “Ultimate Justice.” After asking (perhaps too circumspectly) you to provide argument that “Ultimate Justice” even exists, and your declining to provide any such arguments, I guess the conversation is at an end.

    If you are not willing to provide any support for your assertions, then why should it concern me whether my worldview accounts for it or not?

    I noticed also you decided to not respond to my example. Again, I think if a Christian wrestled with this and thought about it, they would see how all moral systems have a problem with enforcement.

    *shrug* Your choice.

    Bill Pratt: In your explanation for what you would say to the dictator, you never once explain to them that their immoral actions would be objectively wrong.
    .
    Bwahahahaha….because all a dictator has to hear is that his/her immoral actions would be immoral, and they would stop doing it. You asked what I would argue and I presented a response under my moral system. Why must I argue under YOUR moral system when you won’t provide any support for why your moral system’s definition is correct?

    Bill Pratt: That is the exact point I was making with the person who is a dictator. There are no negative consequences for them, as they are able to get away with anything. Your argument would completely fail with them.

    .
    What negative consequences would a dictator believe they have under your moral system? That God was “gonna git ‘im”? (You have yet to show your moral system has any more persuasive force than that.)

    What argument under your system would work with a dictator?

    I quite agree—if I cannot convince a dictator they would have negative consequences, they will do what they want. Again (and again and again and again) this is true of ALL moral systems—including yours.

    I tried to get you to understand this by my example.

    So, Bill Pratt. What would YOU say to a dictator under your moral system that would make them hesitate? Especially (as so many) if they do not ascribe to your moral system?

  • Andrew Ryan

    “So, Bill Pratt. What would YOU say to a dictator under your moral system that would make them hesitate? Especially (as so many) if they do not ascribe to your moral system?”

    Still no answer on this…

    And ‘don’t be a dictator or you’ll go to hell’ isn’t a good answer.

  • The problem with “objective morality,” as I see it, is that unlike consequential morality, it has no persuasive power. Consequential arguments for morality (i.e. “x action is wrong because of y consequence”) give us the power to point towards accepted, basic, nearly universal moral norms, such as people’s desire to avoid suffering of one kind or another (be it physical, emotional, etc.), and say that “x action is wrong because it causes y consequence, which we can all agree is not in our best interests towards z goal.”

    If some given action is simply “objectively wrong self-evidently just because,” then it has no persuasive power — there is no real, worldly facet to which its “wrongness” corresponds and which can be held up as a persuasive “reason” for why it should not be done.

    In a way, appealing to morality in such a way commits another sort of homunculus fallacy — “why is x wrong? Because of y. But why is y wrong? Because of z.” It tries to explain a phenomenon (the definition of “wrong”) in terms of the very phenomenon it’s trying to explain. It’s wrong because we can compare it to something else that’s wrong, which is itself wrong because of something else we can compare it to. This fallacious, infinite regression can only be terminated in some sort of foundational, “self-evident” observation.

    The objective moralist says, “aha! That’s where god comes in.” However, I find that this view has little persuasive power unless you are already Christian — in which case it commits the exact same homunculus fallacy. “x action is wrong because god’s nature makes it wrong, and we know god’s nature makes it wrong because we know that god exists, and we know that god exists because x action is wrong.” So this argument, in itself, is *completely useless* unless someone already accepts the Christian worldview. A reasonable approach to correct this would typically be to find some other way to explain morality to a non-Christian; however, most apologists take the opposite approach, that since this fallacious reasoning only works on Christians, instead of trying to find a more universal approach to morality, we have to turn everyone into Christians so it will work on them!

    In physical, humanist, consequentialist, or any other what-have-you nontheistic moral system, the foundational observation on which these further conclusions are based is not “the nature of god,” or the “intrinsic goodness of something which can only be asserted and believed yet never demonstrated,” but rather the intrinsic nature of human beings to avoid at least their own suffering. Sometimes people do things that they feel will make them happy, yet they may be unaware that they could experience an even greater happiness by behaving in a different way — for example, a spurned lover may feel that demolishing his ex’s car will make him feel better because he will feel the “satisfaction” of self-imposed justice (revenge), but it may very well be true that in the long run, such an action will make him less satisfied, for a number of reasons: if he really did love his ex, then making her unhappy in such a way may cause him to feel remorse and feel sorry for her loss, thus leading to feelings of regret and shame. Or he may end up being arrested or sued for damages. But there are arguments which can be made even without the presence of imposed authoritarian consequences, such as the rule of law. Simple human desires are often enough of a basis from which to argue.

    The best part is, such morality doesn’t even necessitate that the other person agree with you — even if they feel that destroying the car *will* make them feel better, you can still appeal to reason by reminding them of the consequences — emotional and physical — that their actions will have here and now, in this life, and make a persuasive argument. There’s no way to control the other person, to force them to acknowledge your argument and guarantee that they will listen, but this is true of all moral systems, and no less so of so-called “objective” moral systems.

  • Is there evidence for objective moral truth? Show me.
    All I ever hear is the claim of universal moral truth, never any evidence of it. Are we seeing universal moral truth or universally held moral instincts? Seems to me that the latter explains things much better.
    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/2012/04/ms-dos-and-objective-truth/

  • Alex

    What’s interesting is that according to certain Christian doctrines, living a life as a homosexual or fornicator, is equal to living life as a torturer. I agree Bill, citing a Soviet torturer is more visceral. But, are we talking about the relatively worthless human body, or eternal damnation? Isn’t leading someone into a life of supposed sin (homosexual relationship,) worse than torturing the body? What do you think? In one, perhaps only the torturer is sinning. In the other, it takes at least two to tangle. Two sinning is worse than one right Bill? This shows the absurdity of it all Bill…….